How often as a leader have you found yourself in the position where despite your best efforts, often beyond what you may call your duty, people who you know refuse to help themselves?

Have you ever thought that you are not cut out to be a leader?

Have you ever thought, perhaps after getting feedback from your peers or subordinates, that you lack something as a leader?

Do you read many of the latest books on leadership, management and business but still find that something is lacking?

The late Rabbi Friedman was, amongst other things, a philosopher on leadership and he wrote many fables related to the topic. My favourite is The Fable of the Bridge. If you answered yes to any of my leading questions above, a read of The Bridge and other of Friedman’s work may be helpful.

Let me summarise The Bridge first before I draw on my conclusions on leadership lessons available from this one fable.

The fable begins with a man wrestling with his own thoughts about leadership, his life and what choices he wants to make about his life.

It is a moonlit night and alone in his thoughts he starts crossing a bridge. The man sees out of the corner of his eye a stranger dressed much like himself coming towards him. He thinks the man approaching is putting his hand out to greet him. However, the stranger has the end of a rope in his hand with the other end entwined around him.

The stranger asks the man to hold the end of the rope.

Whilst perplexed the man complies.

The stranger asks the man to hold on tight with two hands and then promptly jumps off the bridge toward the swift running deep river below. “Hold on” the stranger cries.

The free-falling body hurtled the distance of the rope’s length, and from the bridge the man abruptly felt the pull. He held tight despite being almost pulled over the side of the bridge.

Peering down at the stranger who was close to oblivion, the man yelled, “What are you trying to do?”

“Just hold tight,” said the other.

The man tried to haul the stranger in but he could not. He could not get enough leverage. His strength was almost perfectly counterbalanced by the other man’s weight.

“Why did you do this?” the man called out. “Remember,” said the other, “if you let go, I will be lost.” “But I cannot pull you up,” the man cried. “I am your responsibility,” said the other. “Well, I did not ask for it,” the man said. “If you let go, I am lost,” repeated the other.

The man looked around for help, tried to invent solutions but could not think of any that would work. He waited for someone to come and help pull the stranger up, but no one came.

Fearing that his arms could not hold out much longer, he tied the rope around his waist.

“Why did you do this?” he asked again. “Don’t you see what you have done? What possible purpose could you have had in mind?”

“Just remember,” said the other, “my life is in your hands.”

Time passed and a decision needed to be made. The man could not hold on much longer.

A thought occurred to him. If the stranger hauled himself up and he kept the end steady and pulled a bit, together they could get the stranger back to safety.

But the other wasn’t interested.

“You mean you won’t help? But I told you I cannot pull you up myself, and I don’t think I can hang on much longer either.” “You must try,” the other shouted back in tears. “If you fail, I die.”

The point of decision arrived. The man said to the other, “Listen to me. I will not accept the position of choice for your life, only for my own; the position of choice for your own life, I hereby give back to you.”

“What do you mean?” the other asked, afraid.

“I mean, simply, it’s up to you. You decide which way this ends. I will help you if you help yourself.”

“You cannot mean what you say,” the other shrieked. “You would not be so selfish. I am your responsibility. What could be so important that you would let someone die? Do not do this to me.”

He waited a moment. There was no change in the tension of the rope. “I accept your choice,” the man said, at last, and freed his hands.

For me, there are several lessons on leadership contained in that one fable.

  1. We cannot lead people by doing things for them. Leadership is not about taking responsibility for others. We have accountability for others but not responsibility. It is not up to us to make people learn, to be ethical, to be productive or to work in teams. We are accountable for recognising that people are not doing those things and offer to help them. Eventually though they have to take responsibility for themselves. We have to take accountability if we do not act on their inability to do those things.
  2. Leadership is not about tying ourselves to others. It is not about, as Friedman in another discussion points out, being charismatic and having people follow our every word. Nor is it about favouring consensus and having everything agreed by everyone. It is about celebrating our differences. It is about being willing and able to think and espouse what we think. It is being able to tolerate someone else having a completely different view. It is not about learning our leadership lessons off the dust jacket of Jack Welch’s latest book.
  3. Leadership is about choices. It is not about perfect solutions. It is about hard choices. The choices we make should head us in the direction of our goal. Our goal may be personal or the one we have determined for our organisation. Some times we may not be clear about our goal as we seek to get clarity for ourselves. However, we should be clear about what it is not.


What choices are you making about your leadership?